Tue
Dec 6 2016 12:00pm

Don’t Turn Out the Lights: New Excerpt

Bernard Minier

Don't Turn Out the Lights is the 3rd book in the Commandant Martin Servaz series (Available December 6, 2016).

“You did nothing.”

Christine Steinmeyer thought the anonymous suicide note she found in her mailbox on Christmas Eve wasn’t meant for her. But the man calling in to her radio show seems convinced otherwise.

"You let her die. . . .”

That’s only the beginning. Bit by bit, her life is turned upside down. But who among her friends and family hates her enough to want to destroy her? And why?It’s as if someone has taken over her life, and everything holding it together starts to crumble. Soon all that is left is an unimaginable nightmare.

Martin Servaz is on leave in a clinic for depressed cops, haunted by his childhood sweetheart Marianne’s kidnapping by his nemesis, the psychopath Julian Hirtmann. One day, he receives a key card to a hotel room in the mail—the room where an artist committed suicide a year earlier. Someone wants him to get back to work, which he’s more than ready to do, despite his mandatory sick leave. Servaz soon uncovers evidence of a truly terrifying crime. Could someone really be cruelly, consciously hounding women to death?

What if the people closest to us are not what they seem? What happens when someone takes control of your life and your relationships? And what is hiding in the darkness?

1

Curtain Raiser

I am writing these words. The last ones. And as I write them, I know it’s over: this time there won’t be any going back.

You’ll be angry with me for doing this to you on Christmas Eve. I know it is the worst possible insult to your bloody sense of propriety. You and your fucking manners. To think I believed your lies and your promises. The more words there are, the less truth there is: that’s the way of the world nowadays.

I really am going to do it, you know. That at least is not hot air. Is your hand trembling a little now? Have you broken out in a sweat?

Or maybe, instead, you are smiling as you read these words. Are you behind all this? Or is it your slut? Are you the ones who sent me all these operas? And the rest: was that you, too? It hardly matters. There was a time I would have given anything to know who could hate me so much, a time when I was desperately trying to find out how I could have caused so much hatred. Because it must have been my fault, obviously – that’s what I thought. But not any longer.

I think I’m going mad. Completely and utterly mad. Unless it’s the medication. And anyway, this time, I don’t have the strength. This time, it’s over. I’m stopping. Whoever it is has won. I can’t do it any more. I can’t sleep any more. Stop.

I’ll never get married. I’ll never have children: I read that somewhere in a novel. Shit. Now I understand what it means. There are things I will miss, of course. Life can be really lovely sometimes, no doubt to hurt us all the more later on. You and I might have ended up making a go of things, over time. Or maybe not … it doesn’t matter. I know you will forget me soon enough, you will file me away in the drawer of unpleasant memories, the ones you don’t like to bring up. You will tell your slut, with a penitent look in your eyes: ‘She was crazy, depressed; I hadn’t realised how much.’ And besides, you will move on quickly to something else. You will laugh and you will fuck. I don’t care: you can die. In the meantime, I will.

Have a happy Christmas all the same.

Christine looked at the back of the envelope: no sender. No stamp, either. Not even her name, Christine Steinmeyer. Someone had left it directly in her mailbox. It must be a mistake. It had to be a mistake: the letter had nothing to do with her. She looked at the rows of mailboxes along the wall, names handwritten on the labels; whoever had slipped the envelope through the slot had picked the wrong box, that was all.

The letter was meant for someone else … someone else in the building.

Then a thought went through her mind that almost took her breath away: is it really what it seems to be? Oh, dear Lord. The only tangible sensation she noticed was a momentary loss of balance. She looked again at the tightly folded piece of paper: and if it is, then someone must be notified. Yes, but who? Christine thought about the person who had written the letter – the state she must be in, what she might be doing at that very moment – and she clutched her stomach, her fingers icy. She read the penultimate line again, slowly, analysing every word: You can die. In the meantime, I will. There could be no doubt: this letter was from someone who intended to put an end to her life.

Shit …

On Christmas Eve, someone in this town, or not far away, was preparing to kill herself – or perhaps she had already done it – and Christine was the only one who knew. And there was no way around it, because the person who was supposed to read the letter (and the letter was, quite clearly, a call for help) was not going to read it.

A hoax. It had to be a hoax.

If only there were a first name, something, she could have gone around knocking on every door, asking, ‘Do you know so-and-so?’

The automatic timer went off, plunging the hall into darkness, a darkness broken only by the light from the street that came through the double glass and wrought-iron door. She gave a start and looked towards the door, as if whoever had put the envelope in her mailbox might reappear at any moment. On the pavement across the street, the artisan boulangerie had decorated their window, and through the snowflakes she could see Santa Claus’s sleigh. She shivered, and not just because of the letter: the danger of darkness, to her, was as terrifying as a razor’s edge.

Just then her mobile began to vibrate in her pocket.

‘What the hell are you doing?’

*   *   *

She slammed the heavy door behind her. Out on the pavement a cold wind tugged at her scarf. Her cheeks were wet with the snow that had begun falling again; a fine layer was already covering the tarmac. She looked up and down the street until Gérald flashed his headlights at her.

There was a blast of Nick Cave singing ‘Jubilee Street’, a pleasant smell of leather, new plastic and male aftershave when she opened the passenger door. She collapsed onto the seat of the bulky white SUV, but left the door slightly open. Gérald turned to her with a special Christmas smile on his lips, and when he leaned over to kiss her, a soft grey silk scarf tickled her chin. She felt the warmth radiating from his body and smelled the pleasant scent wafting from his clothes. Like a shot of heroin: she felt the addiction biting, the jab of need deep in her guts.

‘Are you ready to face Monsieur Things-Were-Better-in-the-Past and Madame Why-Aren’t-You-Eating-My-Dear?’ he asked, leaning over to her with his phone. He opened the photo app.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Look, I’m taking your picture.’

His voice warmed her like a smooth sip of Irish coffee, but she was finding it hard to smile sincerely.

‘Take a look at this first.’

She switched on the overhead light and handed him the letter and the envelope.

‘Christine, we’re late already.’

His voice was like a caress, but firm: a mixture of gentleness and authority. This was what had struck her when they met, much more than his looks.

‘Take a look all the same.’

‘Where on earth did you get this?’

His tone was almost disapproving, as if he held her responsible for having found the message.

‘In my mailbox.’

In spite of the dim light, she could read the intense surprise behind his glasses. And the annoyance: Gérald did not like the unexpected.

‘Well?’ she urged. ‘What do you think?’

He shrugged. ‘It’s got to be a hoax. What else could it be?’

‘I don’t think so. It sounds real.’

He sighed, pushed his glasses higher up his nose, and in the pale glow from the overhead light looked again at the sheet of paper in his gloved fingers.

‘Then in that case, it’s a mistake,’ he concluded. ‘The letter was meant for someone else.’

‘Precisely.’

He looked at her again. ‘Right, listen, we’ll get to the bottom of it later. My parents are already waiting for us.’

Yes, yes, of course: your parents. Christmas. Who cares if a woman tries to commit suicide tonight?

‘Gérald, do you realise what this letter means?’

He took his hands away from the steering wheel and placed them in his lap.

‘I think so, yes,’ he said solemnly, but a trace half-heartedly. ‘What – what do you think we should do?’

‘I don’t know. Don’t you have any ideas? We can’t just sit here and do nothing.’

‘Listen.’ Again that disapproving tone, which seemed to say, No one but you would go stirring up such a hornets’ nest, Christine. ‘We’re expected at my parents’, darling: this is your first meeting with them and we’re already nearly an hour late. This letter may be real, or it may not. We’ll deal with it once we get there, I promise you, but now we really have to get going.’

He had spoken calmly, in a reasonable voice. Too reasonable: it was the tone he used when she was getting on his nerves, which seemed to be more and more frequently lately. The tone of someone saying, Have you noticed how incredibly patient I am? She shook her head.

‘There are only two possibilities: either it’s a call for help which won’t be heard because the person who was meant to read the letter won’t read it, or someone really is going to commit suicide this evening – and in either case, I am the only one who knows.’

‘So … what?’

‘We have to inform the police.

He rolled his eyes.

‘But the letter isn’t even signed! And there’s no address! Even if we go to the police, what do you want them to do? And can you imagine how long it will take? It’s going to completely screw up our Christmas Eve!’

‘Our Christmas Eve? We’re talking about a matter of life or death!’

She could sense him stiffening with exasperation. He let out a sigh, like a punctured tyre.

‘What the fuck, what the hell do you want us to do?’ he shouted. ‘We have no way of knowing who it is, Christine! No way at all! And besides, there’s every chance the person is bluffing: you don’t go putting a letter in a mailbox when you’re at the end of your tether, you leave a note where it can be found! It’s probably just some delusional woman who’s alone on Christmas Eve and this was the only thing she could think of to attract attention. She’s calling for help, but it doesn’t mean she’ll go through with it.’

‘So you want us to go and celebrate as if nothing had happened?’

‘For Christ’s sake, Christine, what the hell do I know! This will be the first time you’ve ever met my parents. Can you imagine the impression it will make if we get there three hours late!’

‘You make me think of those morons who say, “Couldn’t he go and commit suicide somewhere else?” when their train gets delayed.’

‘Are you calling me a moron?’

His voice had gone down an octave. She stole a glance at him. He was pale: even his lips had drained of colour.

Shit, she’d gone too far. She raised her hand in the hope of a truce.

‘No, not at all. Of course not. Forgive me. Listen, I’m sorry. But we can’t just pretend nothing happened, can we?’

He sighed, furious. And thought about it. His hands in their leather gloves gripped the steering wheel again. The strange thought suddenly occurred to her that there was far too much leather in his car.

He sighed once again.

‘How many flats are there in your building?’

‘Ten. Two on each floor.’

‘Here’s what I suggest. We’ll knock on every door, show them your letter and ask the tenants if they have any idea who might have written it.’

She looked at him carefully.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Anyway, I’ll bet you that half of them will have left to celebrate Christmas elsewhere, so it won’t take that long.’

‘And what about your parents?’

‘I’ll ring them and explain what’s going on and that we’ll be late. They’ll understand. And we can limit our search even further: the letter is obviously addressed to a man. How many men are there who live alone in the building, do you know?’

She did know. It was an old building, and for the most part had been divided up into studios and one-bed flats by the previous owner, eager to make as much money as possible off his investment. There were only two big family flats, on the floors below her own.

‘Two,’ she replied.

‘In that case, it will only take us a few minutes. Even supposing they’re in.’

She realised he was right. She should have thought of this sooner.

‘And we’ll ring at the other doors too, just in case,’ he added. ‘It shouldn’t take too long. And after that we’ll go straight to my parents’.’

‘But what if we don’t find anything?’

He shot her a look that said, Don’t push your luck.

‘Then I’ll call the cops from my parents’, and ask them what we should do. Christine, there’s nothing more we can do. And I’m not going to ruin Christmas because of something that’s probably a hoax.’

‘Thank you,’ she said.

He shrugged, and glanced into the rearview mirror before opening his door and stepping out into the cold night, leaving behind a ghost of male warmth and scent.

*   *   *

Nine twenty-one p.m., 24 December. For once it was snowing hard in Toulouse. The night sky was full of clouds, and the crowd hurried by in a whirlwind of shapes and glimmering light while the Christmas decorations gleamed on ever-whiter pavements. She had changed the station on the car radio. Her colleagues from Radio Five seemed as excited as if they had announced the end of the world or World War III. All around them cars were blowing their horns, people were shouting, the place was buzzing with an electric mixture of general impatience and overexcitement. Gérald himself was fuming, but silently: they were over two hours late.

She thought about the letter again. The person who had written it.

Of course they hadn’t found out a thing. All the single people had gone out for Christmas Eve, and so had the couples. Only the two families in the building were at home, one of which had four kids who were as overexcited as the rest of the population, shouting so loudly that Gérald had to raise his voice as he brandished the letter in their parents’ faces. At first neither the husband nor the wife seemed to get what he was saying. Then when understanding finally dawned, Christine thought she saw a gleam of suspicion in the woman’s eyes as she looked at her husband. But his cluelessness and stupefaction seemed sincere.

The second family was a young couple with a child. They seemed very close, very together, and for a moment she wondered whether she and Gérald would look like that someday. They had seemed sincerely shocked by the letter: ‘My God, what a horrible story!’ cried the young woman, who was very visibly pregnant – and for a moment Christine thought she might burst into tears. After that, she and Gérald went back downstairs in silence.

She stole a glance at him. He was clenching his jaw as he drove. He hadn’t said a word since they’d set out. And on his forehead was that almost painful line which she was sometimes surprised to see there.

‘We did what we had to do,’ she declared.

He didn’t answer, not even to nod. For a moment she was angry at him for trying to make her feel guilty. Because that’s what he was trying to do, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t they have felt guilty, rather, for the sake of that person they wouldn’t manage to save? She wondered whether it was just her imagination, or whether the more serious things got between them, the more he told her off and contradicted her. Then he erased everything with a smile and a kind word, but still: his behaviour had changed lately. She knew when it had started. When the word marriage had first been uttered.

Christmas. Shit. Our first Christmas Eve. His parents tonight and mine tomorrow. Will they like him? Is he going to like them? You shouldn’t get so worked up: everyone likes Gérald. His colleagues, his students, his friends, his mechanic, even your dog. That’s what you thought the first time, wasn’t it, at the reception at the Capitole? Remember? There were prettier women there, with better figures, slimmer and even, I’m sure, more intelligent – but you’re the one he went up to; even when you gave him the brush-off, he returned for another shot. And then he said, ‘Your voice sounds familiar … where have I heard it before?’ Even when you went on about your job at Radio Five a bit too long, he listened. Really listened. You wanted to be funny, witty, but in the end you weren’t, not all that much. Except where he was concerned: he seemed to think everything you said was ever so amusing and entertaining.

Maybe everyone liked Gérald – but her parents were not everybody. Her parents were Guy and Claire Dorian. The Dorians who used to be on TV … Who knows what it would take to get yourself liked by people who had interviewed, among others, Arthur Rubinstein, Chagall, Sartre, Tino Rossi, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin …

That’s the thing, added the little voice she had learned to hate and obey at the same time, as the years went by. Papa will neither love him nor hate him: he won’t care. Quite simply, my father is only interested in one thing: himself. It’s not easy to have been one of television’s pioneers – a guy who spent all his time on the small screen – then to become anonymous all over again. My father is constantly marinating in nostalgia and memories, and drowns his ennui in alcohol and doesn’t even try to hide it. And besides – so what? He’s free to destroy the final days of his existence if he feels like it: I’m not going to let him destroy mine.

‘Are you all right?’ asked Gérald.

In his voice there was a faint hint of contrition. She nodded.

‘You know, I understand you felt bad because of that letter.’

She looked at him. Nodded ‘okay’. And thought, Of course you don’t, you don’t understand. They had slowed down; she looked at a huge poster inside a bus shelter: an ad for Dolce & Gabbana. Five strong young men surrounding a woman lying on the ground. Their bodies were muscular, oiled, gleaming. Handsome. Hypersexual. The men were bare-chested and one of them was pinning the woman to the ground. A cheap come-on for zombie consumers, she thought. Poster-women, trophy-women: public space was saturated with women’s bodies. Christine had invited the director of an association for victims of domestic violence onto her programme. Seven days a week she received calls from battered wives, wives who were not allowed to speak to their neighbours, let alone any men other than their husbands, wives who were terrified that the dinner might be overcooked or too salty, wives whose bones bore the traces of fractures and blows, wives who had no access to either a bank account or a doctor, wives who – when they found the courage to go to the association – had an empty, desperate look in their eyes.

One day, when she was still just a child, she herself had witnessed a scene … That was why she felt the need to invite strong, exemplary women onto her programme, women who were bosses, activists, artists, politicians – and that was also why she would never let a man tell her how to behave.

Are you absolutely sure?

Gérald was no longer paying any attention to her. Staring straight ahead, he was lost in his thoughts, and she had no idea what they might be. Who was the author of the letter? She had to find out.

 

Copyright © 2016 Bernard Minier.

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Bernard Minier grew up in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. He had a career as a customs official before publishing his first novel, The Frozen Dead. The novel has been translated into a dozen languages and has garnered critical acclaim, as well as several literary prizes in France. Minier is also the author of The Circle.

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